Tag Archives: Vernor Vinge

Deepness proves Vinge a master of quality space opera

The Qeng Ho fleet was the first to arrive at the OnOff star. That might not matter. For the last fifty years of their voyage, they had watched the torch-plumes of the Emergent fleet as it decelerated toward the same destination.
This was a situation where treachery might be rewarded, and both sides knew it.

Title: A Deepness in the Sky
Author: Vernor Vinge
Year: 1999
Rating: 5/5 stars

deepnessThis novel is set in the same universe (the “Zones of Thought”) as Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and although it’s not necessary to have read that previous novel in order to appreciate this one, that is still the easiest angle of approach, so that’s where I’ll start (and hey, you should read them both anyway, since they’re both fantastic). In Fire we meet the character of Pham Nuwen, who is actually a sophisticated recreation of the original Pham Nuwen, constructed by one of the super-advanced Powers from the Beyond. This artificial being has the personality and memories of the actual living Nuwen, and throughout the book we get tantalizing glimpses into his long-ago life as part of the Qeng Ho trading culture in the Slow Zone. A Deepness in the Sky takes us back to that time, some twenty thousand years earlier, and lets us share some of the exploits of the real Pham Nuwen. And once again, Vinge scores a hit, delivering a modern space opera classic.

As the story opens, Nuwen is in hiding after being betrayed and toppled from his position of power many years ago, just when he was on the brink of achieving his greatest dream — the dream of a network capable of holding humanity together throughout the galaxy without the periodic dark ages it has been accustomed to. Now, after a long and massive search, one of his former captains has tracked him down, and convinces him to join an expedition that offers unique and unprecedented opportunities for profit. Astronomers had long known of the OnOff star, a mysterious stellar object that goes dark for 215 out of every 250 years, but no one had ever investigated up close. But it has suddenly become urgent, since radio signals have been picked up from a planet orbiting OnOff — signals suggesting the world is home to the first alien species ever discovered by humanity.

But the Qeng Ho are not the only ones to recognize the opportunities of the situation. Another of humanity’s countless long-separated branches happens to dwell near enough to send an expedition. The Emergents, as they call themselves, see OnOff and the alien civilization there differently than the Qeng Ho — as a resource to be ruthlessly exploited, rather than as a potential trading partner. The rigidly authoritarian and dictatorial Emergent culture is the antithesis of the libertarian, free-market-loving Qeng Ho, and as the two race toward their common destination, a clash of civilizations is inevitable. But the Emergents have a secret weapon to use in that clash: a certain virus found on their homeworld, tamed over centuries, that has profound effects on the human brain. In a weaponized form called “mindrot” it is a crippling disease that shuts down higher mental functions. In a different form called “Focus,” it’s a tool for turning a human being into a living computer. The Focused are like idiot savants, concentrating their entire mental life on their one specialty (navigation, translation, physics, or whatever) with nothing left over for anything else, even simple human interaction. These genius zombies are loyal to their creators (without enough individual will to resist), and are the backbone of Emergent power. And even as the Qeng Ho face the most ruthless adversaries they’ve ever met, Nuwen faces a temptation: is Focus the answer to his long-held dream of a unified human galaxy?

But there’s more going on here. Just as its companion novel does, A Deepness in the Sky tells half of its story from the perspective of an alien species. The Spiders (so called by the Qeng Ho for their general arachnid appearance) have a unique culture shaped by the unusual circumstances of their environment. On a planet that only gets significant sunlight for 35 out of every 250 years, survival through the Long Dark is paramount. While the world goes cold and the atmosphere itself freezes and snows to the ground, the Spiders hibernate in their deepnesses (caverns dug in the ground) awaiting the next cycle of light and warmth, when their society will flourish again. Or, I should say, societies; for the Spiders are split into different nations and factions with a range of social and political beliefs, and a willingness to wage war for them. Just as the humans in space above battle over their various ideals, so it goes for the Spiders below. Those two arenas of conflict, and their interactions and resolutions, are what this novel is all about.

The book is full of familiar human issues (freedom vs. authoritarianism, liberalism vs. conservatism, Big Brother-style surveillance, the costs and benefits of progress) played out in another part of the galaxy, and played out very well. From the machinations of the Emergents, to the history of Nuwen and the Qeng Ho, to the mystery of the OnOff star itself, every part of this book makes for an intensely satisfying read. Vinge is one of the best at this sort of novel, and I really hope he writes more in this universe, since the ending left me eager for more.

The two Vernor Vinges (the short and the long of it)

vingestoriesI have read several of Vernor Vinge’s novels and found their quality to range anywhere from “good” to “outstanding.” Indeed, over the time period I read those books, I’ve come to regard him as a solid and reliable author, perhaps even a growing favorite. So it seemed like a no-brainer to get this 2001 volume, The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, containing nearly every story he had published up to that time. After all, if he’s that great a writer, how could I go wrong? Surely there must be some decent stories, and maybe some real gems, residing inside this 464-page tome of tales, right? Well, umm, as it turns out…… no, not really. I honestly can’t think of another story collection or anthology that I was more thoroughly unimpressed with than this one. And I take no pleasure in saying this, believe me.

The thing is, I know Vinge can write, damn it; A Fire Upon the Deep is one of the finest space operas ever written, if you ask me, and his other novels aren’t too shabby either. That’s why I’m at a total loss in explaining or understanding this. When it comes to short stories, it’s as if every ounce of writing talent Vinge possesses flew out the window. I mean, a lot of these stories are downright ineptly written, and I can’t figure how they ever got published (a few were even bought by Campbell, which surprises me). It strikes me that with Vinge’s writing, the rule is: the longer the better. There’s a clear (at least clear to me) rise in the quality level as he goes from short story to novelette/novella to medium-length novel to longer novel. And so, the longer pieces of this collection, those around novella length, are the best of the lot — although I cautiously use “best” as a relative term.

The single piece that was of any interest to me was “The Blabber.” This is one of those longer stories I mentioned, and it was Vinge’s first foray into his “Zones of Thought” universe, the setting for A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. It was written before either of those novels, although the events take place in a later time. While not that great a story in its own right, it was interesting to read the first instantiation of some of the ideas and characters that I would later fall in love with in Fire.

Similarly, this collection also contains Vinge’s novella “Fast Times at Fairmont High,” the first example of the near-future world that would later become the basis for Rainbows End. The same technological and social extrapolations are present, and for that this novella deserves some credit. However, “Fast Times,” unlike Rainbows End, fails to place those extrapolations in the context of anything approaching an interesting plot, and it ends up being just a day in the life of some junior high school kids, a showcase for their technological savvy. My advice: skip the story, read the book.

There were a couple more “from the same world” stories. One was “The Ungoverned,” set in the world of The Peace War. I thought that novel was pretty good; I thought this story was a complete waste of the paper it’s printed on. And “The Barbarian Princess” is a companion to Grimm’s World. I haven’t read that one, so I admit I skimmed over this story pretty quickly, but nothing about it inspired the barest flicker of my interest.

And none of the rest of these numerous stories did anything for me either. A story should have at least one thing going for it, whether it’s character development, or an exciting plot, or a fascinating idea to explore. Most of these stories failed on all counts, consisting of characters I didn’t care about, engaged in events that seemed ridiculous, in the service of ideas I thought were dull and uninspiring.

So, great novels and lousy short stories, from the same author? Can someone explain this to me? Are there really two Vinges, one doing the short writing and the other the longer projects? Did we gain an extra Vinge from some alternate universe, like in that old Star Trek episode with the evil Spock? If so, I hope the one writing the novels sticks around a long time, because I’ll keep on reading those. But I think I’m done with the short stuff.

A breeding ground for great science fiction authors?

Is there something in the water at the University of California at San Diego that helps turn the students into great sci-fi writers? That’s one of the questions explored in the video below, a fantastic panel discussion featuring some of those UCSD alumni who have gone on to become successful sf authors. I believe this event occurred in 2002.

The panel participants: Gregory Benford (!), David Brin (!), Kim Stanley Robinson (!), Vernor Vinge (!), and Nancy Holder (ok, never heard of her before, I admit). These are all UCSD alumni, and all extremely intelligent and entertaining panelists. The discussion begins around the question of why that particular campus produced so many great writers, and then moves on to other topics such as the “two cultures” (science vs. the humanities), politics and society, the themes and strengths of science fiction, predicting the future, dumb movies, etc. They also talk here and there about some of their work, about various books or stories. And there’s plenty of laughter to go around! These panelists really enjoy themselves here, and so will you.

By the way, a couple other UCSD alumni are also mentioned, who were unable to attend: Suzette Hayden Elgin and Raymond Feist. Wow, they really turn out the authors there in southern CA, huh?

The video is around an hour and a half long, but well worth that much of your time. So…. here’s your video:

Vinge offers a vivid look at the near future

Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End (2006) is subtitled “a novel with one foot in the future,” but that seems a little too modest; to me it feels like the novel takes a daring leap into our near future and lands solidly with both feet. This is a story brimming with technological concepts, all combining to create a revealing and plausible vision of what the world could look like in another twenty years. And what does that world look like? In some ways it’s hopeful and inviting; in other ways it’s dangerous and downright scary. It’s a very different world that you or I might have trouble adapting to, just as the main character does.

Robert Gu, formerly a famous poet, finds himself re-awakening in 2025, having been cured of the Alzheimer’s he suffered from for the past decade and a half. Suddenly he must try to reconnect not only with his family, but also with a world that has transformed into something uncomfortable and alienating to him. It’s a world of vastly increased connectivity, a world that makes the internet and cellphones and PDA’s of today seem like something cavemen used. It’s a world in which reality and virtual reality have nearly merged, where everything is networked, where everyone wears computers woven into their clothing and can instantly chat with anyone anywhere in the world (via a virtual face-to-face meeting, or through silent messaging — “sming”). As Robert learns to adapt to his new environment, he and the other characters become embroiled in events that demonstrate the complexities such a future might entail.

There are quite a few different technological facets that the book is built from. One of the biggest is what has been called “digital Gaia.” Everything in this future world has embedded processors — buildings, roadways, anything you can name, every manufactured item there is — and these processors are networked so the location and status of every object is instantly available. In these notes for one of his talks, Vinge said:

In this situation, physical reality becomes its own database and cyberspace leaks out into the real world.

Another major element is computer-mediated reality, a kind of virtual reality everyone creates for themselves using their own wearable computer and special contact lenses which provide various overlays on top of the real view. These can be used simply to view information, rather in the style of a head-up display, or to alter the visual appearance of your surroundings to any extent you desire. And these overlays can be shared with anyone else who is “wearing” and wants to tune in.

One of the big themes of the book is the increased problem of security in such a world. Vinge puts it like this:

The Red Queen’s Race continued. In all innocence, the marvelous creativity of humankind continued to generate unintended consequences. There were a dozen research trends that could ultimately put world-killer weapons into the hands of anyone having a bad hair day.

One of the solutions presented is the Secure Hardware Environment, meaning every computer chip is designed so that it can be monitored by government, and thus impossible to subvert by criminals or terrorists. Vinge doesn’t delve into the inherent question of government abuse and privacy issues. Apparently the people of 2025 are all too willing to accept the SHE, especially since five years earlier Chicago was the victim of a nuclear attack by terrorists.

There is also YGBM (You-Gotta-Believe-Me) research, the effort to create mind-control technology. In fact, as the novel opens it seems someone has made a breakthrough in this area, and this is what drives the central action of the plot.. Then there’s JITT — “Just In Tme Training.” The basic idea is familiar in sf: the downloading of information into the human brain so that something can be almost instantly learned. JITT, for all its promise, has a serious downside — people often get “stuck” on the downloaded content and suffer a kind of mental breakdown. Also prominent in the book is the advancement of medical science in the future, with its cures for many serious diseases. It’s even possible for those rich enough to commission cures for their own particular conditions. This is partly due to the intensely networked society which allows, as never before, the easy sharing and cross-referencing of information and the ability to collaborate with any number of people all around the world.

Another technological aspect is the digitization of physical books, portrayed in the subplot about the Librareome Project, which destroys whole libraries of books in the process of converting them to digital form. On one level, this didn’t seem realistic at all, since such digitization could be accomplished without destroying the books. On the other hand, the explanation was that the powerfully-connected company in charge wanted the books gone, so they would have a limited-time monopoly on licensing rights to the digital database of all human literature. The corporate greed and corruption certainly did seem realistic.

Finally, there is also the possibility that a certain mysterious character is in fact an artificial intelligence. At the end, it is still unclear whether or not this was the case, but the possibility is there.

So you can see, there’s a lot going on in this novel from a technological standpoint. But it’s not just an attempt to “wow” the reader; Vinge presents a sober look at both the technology and how it might affect society. And it’s a story told through the eyes of people with real human concerns, portrayed with a strong sense of characterization. This novel deals not only with hard scientific topics, but with softer issues as well, such as generation gaps and how different age groups see each other, and family estrangement and making up for past mistakes. Whatever angle you want to take — the intriguing technology, the high-action thriller-espionage plot, or the human aspect — this is a book you can’t go wrong with.

Vinge’s Peace War — an oxymoron, maybe; a good book, definitely

My second experience with Vernor Vinge goes back back to one of his earlier novels, The Peace War from 1984. While I didn’t like it quite as much as the other book of his I’ve read, it was nevertheless a fine novel with intriguing ideas, believable characters, and an engaging plot.

The Peace War weaves scientific, social, and political elements together into a story that makes us think about not only of the possibilities of the future, but also about the realities of our current world. One of the major themes is about the trade-offs between freedom and security, surely an age-old problem, and one getting a lot of attention these days in the midst of the “War on Terror.” Another theme is the power of a single scientific breakthrough to totally change the world almost overnight, for better or worse. Added to these are various subplots concerning character issues such as loyalty and betrayal, revenge, lost love, and so forth, that really help flesh out the story.

The setting is the mid-21st century and a world that is more or less at peace, with a single worldwide “government” known as the Peace Authority controlling it. The roots of this world are to be found 50 years earlier in a scientific discovery at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — a kind of forcefield that comes to be known as a “bobble.” A bobble is a spherical field, anywhere from a few centimeters to many kilometers in diameter (depending on the power supply creating it), that is completely impervious and indestructible. Nothing can pass in or out, not even light, and they last indefinitely once established (or so everyone thinks at the start of the book). Some ambitious Livermore administrators saw an opportunity to put their political ideals into practice and seized the moment, using their new technology to form bobbles around military bases, ships, aircraft, nuclear launch sites, and other military assets before the world knew what was happening. At the same time they used other assets at their disposal (including biological weapons) to wage a bloody worldwide war, greatly reducing the population. Their goal was to eliminate the chaos of a world in which it was becoming more and more possible for some small rogue nation to get nukes and start World War III; they decided to take control of the world, backed up with bobble power, against which there was no defense. Eventually the Peace Authority emerged from the conflict as the winner, enforcing a worldwide peace, allowing smaller governmental entities to exist under them, and generally not interfering too much — but still making it clear to all that they were the planet’s masters, and striking swiftly at any attempted opposition.

Fifty years down the road, Earth is a rather peaceful place. As long as people don’t try to build large power sources or pursue biological science — the Peace Authority’s two main restrictions — they are pretty much left alone. The Peace War, as it has come to be called, was severe, but left enough of the world intact so that it doesn’t seem like a post-apocalypse atmosphere. In some ways, humanity has been knocked back somewhat technologically, but in other ways are quite advanced. However, there are no more universities, and no formalized scientific establishment, but there is a loose confederation of amateur scientists and inventors called Tinkers, who develop technology under the radar, especially electronics technology. These Tinkers are becoming a force to be reckoned with, and soon the Peace Authority will face its first serious challenge in a half century — especially considering that the Tinkers have on their side the very man who originally discovered the bobbles. After all this time, people are about to discover there is more to the bobbles than anyone knew.

Vinge works in computer science and mathematics and, as one might expect, that expertise comes across in his writing. The science here is solid, and his presentation of electronics, artificial intelligence, and telecommunications seems very believable. The characters are fairly strong as well, although some of them should have been explored a little more deeply. Vinge constructs a plausible future world with a realistic social fabric backing it up, populated with real people with real human concerns.

The back cover blurb calls this “a novel of ultimate tyranny and the war to end it,” and that’s a good enough description. However, if there was one real weakness in this book, it was the fact that Vinge left the main debate in the background and largely glossed over: the question of whether people really would view the situation as “ultimate tyranny.” Many of the main characters seemed naturally inclined toward my own view, best summed up by Ben Franklin when he said, “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” In fact, that seemed to be the majority view outside of the Peace Authority itself. However, the fact remains that the Authority did actually provide stabilization and a peaceful world, and I would have expected some characters, and a sizable portion of the population, to support that. In short, I would have expected a vigorous debate on the issue, but this aspect wasn’t developed much, and it just seemed too easy that everyone agreed on the matter. Still, the debate is implicit in the novel and it’s impossible for the reader not to recognize it, so maybe Vinge thought it didn’t need to be spelled out in detail.

At any rate, I recommend this one. It has a lot going for it, and has enough depth to keep you thinking for a while.

Narrative hooks: some favorites

First a definition, courtesy of wikipedia:

A narrative hook (or hook) is a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep reading on. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story, or several pages for a novel, but ideally is the opening sentence.

I’ve been thinking for quite some time of sharing some of my favorite narrative hooks from science fiction novels; but through a combination of laziness, forgetfulness, and being busy with other things (mostly lots of reading), the idea has been sitting on a back burner, undeveloped. However, I recently got an inspirational kick in the posterior when I read an io9 article about Great Opening Sentences From Science Fiction.” Some of the examples in that article are good ones, some not so good, but then that’s just my opinion. A great hook for one person may be totally boring to another. But for what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorite hooks from science fiction (and fantasy). And by “favorite” I don’t mean judged by some abstract literary measurement; I simply mean that they worked for me. They drew me in and made me feel compelled to keep reading, and that always helps make the reading experience more pleasurable. I won’t restrict myself to single sentences, as the io9 article did, because a good hook usually takes at least several sentences to develop. So……

I mentioned this one a while back in my review of Heinlein’s Friday:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.

That works beautifully to capture the reader’s curiosity. What is a Beanstalk and why is it in Kenya? Why is this one person following the other person, and what could be so important about this that it should involve death? Was the death justified (morally, legally) or not? It sure kept me reading.

Here’s the beginning of one of my all-time favorite novels, A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg:

I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself.

That statement is so strange to me that it screams in my eyes. I look at it on the page, and I recognize the hand as my own — narrow upright red letters on the coarse gray sheet — and I see my name, and I hear in my mind the echoes of the brain-impulse that hatched those words. I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself. Incredible.

When I first read those words I had no idea it was a science fiction novel, nor any idea who Silverberg was. It was just some book I found in a box from a yard sale. But once I opened it and read those first words, I was hooked. I just had to know why this Darival character was shocked at himself for what he wrote; I had to know why it was “incredible” to him.

Another very effective hook comes from Roger Zelazny’s Nice Princes in Amber:

It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.

I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded. I was sprawled there in a hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.

I squeezed my eyes shut, and opened them, three times.

The room grew steady.

Where the hell was I?

That first sentence is a pretty good hook in its own right. But the more you read on, the better it gets. The first several pages constitute a fantastic hook for the novel, but I’m not going to quote that much.

All of the above examples depend on creating an air of mystery. Another way to go is to set up a grand flamboyant atmosphere, as Alfred Bester does in The Stars My Destination:

This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying…. but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice…. but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks…. but nobody loved it.

It can’t be an accident that he uses the word “fascinating” in there, because the whole effect of those lines is to fascinate me and make me want to learn more about this future time.

Then there’s the deep and/or philosophical and/or metaphysical sort of opening, as for example in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep:

How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.

Wow! If even the omniscient viewpoint can’t handle what’s about to be described, then I’m pretty damn sure it’s gonna blow my mind.

So there you have some examples of the kinds of opening lines that hook me. What hooks you?

Vinge: fiery and deep

I first became interested in Vinge a few months ago when I read one of his essays on the Singularity. So I decided it would be a good idea to give his fiction a try as well. I’m glad I did, good stuff this is, A Fire Upon the Deep, from 1992. This is a big, sweeping, intelligent, thought-provoking space opera set in a richly detailed and well-thought-out galaxy. There is lots of action as well as mind-blowing ideas; the perspective ranges from a threat of galactic proportions to medieval machinations on a single planet, and from characters of human-level intelligence to those who are almost god-like. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s all tied together ingeniously.

One of the most amazing ideas, to me, was that of the Known Net, a galactic-level internet that is thousands of years old and connects millions of worlds and information archives. I loved the narrative device of using postings to various Known Net newsgroups to tell part of the story.

And then there are the Zones of Thought. Vinge’s galaxy is divided into several zones which have different effects on what kind of technology works there, how fast one can travel there, and on the potential of the species that live there. I don’t remember him giving a good scientific explanation for these (my one disappointment with the book), but they have something to do with the changing average density of matter as you move outward from the galactic core. Around the core is the area called the Unthinking Depths. Outside that is the Slow Zone. Further on is the Beyond. And outside that is the Transcend. Many species progress as far as they can in their “home” zone, and then migrate to a higher one. Once a species reaches the Transcend, its growth potential goes through the roof, allowing the chance to become a Power. Powers are beings so advanced they seem to possess almost god-like intelligence (although they can act only in limited ways in the lower zones). Everything in the novel is set against this backdrop of ever-increasing potential for species to become more than they are, to follow a steeply-rising curve in increasing intelligence (which is an implementation of the basic idea behind the Singularity).

Another noteworthy facet of the novel is the exploration of a species in which each individual member consists of around four to eight separate bodies, with the individual consciousness spread among them. Vinge does a fantastic job of examining the implications of this and surveying the different strengths and weaknesses such a species might have, and working all that into a plausible and intriguing society for them. As far as I’m concerned, some of the members of this species were the most interesting characters in the book. And if one wishes to look for it, there is probably some commentary there about the relative value of individuals versus groups or societies.

It took me forever to get through this book and its 600+ pages, but it was well worth it.